Jim Horning puts away frozen meat during a brief moment of downtime, Feb. 27 at Friends of St. Andrew Hospitality Center. Horning has been volunteering at Friends for 21 years. There is concern that the reduced subsidy for food benefits will cause extra strain on individuals and families struggling to buy groceries.
Photo by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

Aurora food bank officials say they’re worried that shrinking food subsidy benefits set to expire across the country as well as Colorado will put even more stress on people struggling to pay for groceries.

Nearly 30 million Americans who got extra government help with grocery bills during the pandemic will soon see that aid grow smaller. An analysis shows for the average recipient, the change will mean about $90 less per month in food stamps.

In Colorado and 31 states and other jurisdictions, the COVID-19 emergency allotments will end with February payments.

While the nation appears to have emerged from the most serious phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, Karla Maraccini, director of the Food & Energy Assistance Division of the Colorado Department of Human Services, said enrollment in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as SNAP or “food stamps,” remains up 23% over pre-pandemic levels.

A weeks worth of soup accoutrement lay wait at the Friends of St. Andrews Hospitality Center, which is a food bank and soup kitchen in Aurora. There is concern that the reduced subsidy for food benefits will cause extra strain on individuals and families struggling to buy groceries.
Photo by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

Maraccini said the state projects the rollback of benefits worth $55 million will impact around 286,000 households across Colorado. County spokespeople said that figure includes roughly 58,300 homes in Arapahoe and Adams counties.

Siobhan Latimer, director of the Friends of St. Andrew food pantry in Aurora, said that she’s concerned about how the expiration of the expanded benefits will affect people who are already being squeezed by the high cost of groceries.

“There’s no question that this is a real struggle for people,” she said.

The food pantry is currently seeing about 1,000 people a week, Latimer said. Along with serving hot meals five days a week, it also serves as a mailing address for dozens of people who are homeless or lack a permanent address and delivers food baskets for people to take home.

She said recently St. Andrew has been hearing from a lot of people who appear to be struggling with food insecurity for the first time, and have a lot of basic questions about how to get connected to services. Volunteers do their best to connect them with local resources, she said.

“There are certain days the phone has been ringing off the hook,” she said.

Other states have already stopped giving out extra food stamps. The extra help started at the beginning of the pandemic. Officials in 32 states and other jurisdictions have been using texts, voicemails, snail mail, flyers and social media posts — all in multiple languages — to let recipients know that their extra food stamps end after February’s payments.

“One of the scenarios you don’t want to see is the first time they’re aware of it is in the checkout line at the grocery store,” said Ellen Vollinger, an official with the Food Research & Action Center, a nonprofit organization.

For the average recipient, the change will mean about $90 less per month, though for many, it could be much more, an analysis shows. Benefits will return to usual levels, which are based largely on a household’s income, size and certain expenses, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

A public notice in Michigan urged the 1.3 million recipients in that state to “seek needed resources” to make up for the cuts.

“We want to make sure our clients are prepared for this change, as we realize inflation is affecting all of us,” said Lewis Roubal with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

Maraccini and county representatives described a variety of strategies being deployed to notify SNAP recipients, including sending letters, emails and text messages, and posting to social media to make sure no one is caught unaware by the reduction in benefits.

Jacqueline Benitez, 21, who works as a preschool teacher in Bellflower, California, expects a significant cut, perhaps half, of the $250 in food benefits she has received since 2020 through CalFresh, the state’s SNAP program.

“It’s such a lifesaver,” said Benitez, who was previously homeless, but now lives in a subsidized one-bedroom apartment. “Food is such a huge expense. It’s a little nerve-wracking to think about not having that.”

Benitez said she’s already thinking twice about paying $5 for fresh fruit.

“What happens if it goes bad?” she said.

The emergency program was enacted by Congress at the start of the pandemic in March 2020 and expanded a year later. Originally, the extra benefits were intended to continue as long as the COVID-19 public health emergency was in force. It’s now set to expire in May.

But 18 states have already rolled back payments for more than 10 million people and Congress decided to end the program early, trading the extra benefits for a new permanent program that provides extra money to low-income families to replace school meals during the summer.

Soup is portioned and is part of the lunch offering, Feb. 27 at Friends of St. Andrew. Friends serves as a food bank and soup kitchen, and serves anyone in need of a meal or groceries.
Photo by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

Experts credit the emergency funds with making sure most Americans had enough food to eat, despite the pandemic. About 10% of U.S. households had trouble obtaining sufficient food in 2020 and 2021, roughly unchanged from pre-COVID levels.

SNAP benefits can rise and fall with inflation and other factors. Maximum benefits went up by 12% in October to reflect an annual cost-of-living adjustment boosted by higher prices for foods and other goods. But payments went down for those who also receive Social Security because of the 8.7% cost-of-living increase in that program on Jan 1.

In most such cases, purchasing power should hold steady, said Stacy Dean, USDA deputy undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services.

“The emergency allotments were always intended to be temporary and they did tremendous good during a very difficult time in our country,” Dean said. “The process of unwinding from them will certainly be difficult for families who are counting on those benefits.”

The rollback is coming during a time when inflation, though improving, remains elevated and food prices are still high.

For most of its 36-year history, Latimer said she placed an order with Food Bank of the Rockies, which supplies much of St. Andrew’s food, twice a month. Since the pandemic started, she’s been placing an order every week.

The food pantry has also recently increased its number of Spanish speaking volunteers due to an increase in people from Central America who speak little to no English, Latimer said. Volunteers could communicate enough to serve them food but weren’t able to have in-depth conversations with them, so now the pantry has at least one person who is fluent in Spanish every day that it’s open.

Longtime Queen of Peace member Valerie Goshorn recently started volunteering at St. Andrew after working with the homeless in various capacities for over 25 years. She speaks Spanish, and said she’s spoken to a number of migrants from Venezuela, Columbia and other South American countries who are new to the area and looking for work.

“They’re just very humble and grateful,” she said.

Goshorn said she has wanted to volunteer at St. Andrew for a long time, but until recently it hadn’t worked out with her schedule.

“I love it,” she said. “It’s just a beautiful place to serve.”

A list showing the needs of a family getting a basket of groceries from Friends of St. Andrew tells the volunteers family size, what to specifically pack and how much. Each basket provides three days worth of food, no matter the family size.
Photo by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

Inflation has been a challenge for food banks along with the people they serve. Purchasing enough food to keep up with the demand has not been easy, Latimer said, especially now that everything costs more. She praised the City of Aurora and the Food Bank of the Rockies for the amount of support they provide.

Aditi Desai, chief marketing officer at Food Bank of the Rockies, said that the bank has been spending three times as much per month purchasing food as it was before the pandemic began. The bank is anticipating increasing its output by 20% to keep up with the demand in food aid caused by the ending of the expanded benefit.

“We’re bracing for this change because with inflation the way it is, families were really relying on this emergency benefit,” she said.

“With this additional benefit ending we’re going to see quite a bit more need in our community.”

Along with the rising price of food, the increase in heating bills has also been difficult. Some people are now “having to make the decision, do I pay my bills or do I eat?” Latimer said.

With all these challenges, she worries that the decrease in SNAP benefits will kick people who were previously getting by into uncertain territory.

Officials at SECORCares, a nonprofit that works primarily in Arapahoe, Douglas and Elbert counties, have similar concerns.

“It really feels like this couldn’t come at a more inconvenient time,” said director of philanthropy Brie Dilley.

Through its various programs and partnerships, SECORCares feeds about 3,000 people a week, Dilley said. They are anticipating that to increase as people lose their expanded SNAP benefits and are bracing for a “big influx” of both new and returning clientele.

“Guests are saying they’ve been notified about what their new amount of money is going to be and it’s scaring a lot of them,” she said. Senior citizens appear to be getting hit particularly hard by the reduction, she said.

Like Food Bank of the Rockies, the organization is also being squeezed by the fact that inflation is driving up the cost of food and reducing the amount of charitable giving that some people are able to make. Director Mark Heistad said they are looking at different ways they can make ends meet, but that it will be challenging to stay on top of the need.

Packed lunches sit in the lobby of Friends of St. Andrew, Feb. 27, and will be distributed throughout the day to those who need a meal.
Photo by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

The current state of food insecurity can be hard to measure, Desai said. Through its 800-plus partners and its own pantries, she said that Food Bank of the Rockies serves about 12% of the population in its coverage area in Colorado and Wyoming. In 2021, the nonprofit Hunger Free Colorado conducted a survey that found that 44% of Colorado households with children struggle to have regular access to nutritious food.

Shelley Boyd, 45, of Beaver, Pennsylvania, expects to make more trips to her local food pantry starting next month. She and her fiancé and teenage son started getting food stamps last year after both adults lost their jobs and unemployment benefits ran out. The family receives about $630 per month. They expect to lose about $95, if not more.

“That’s where our food pantry comes in,” Boyd said. “We visit them and do what you gotta do.”

At the same time, food pantries nationwide remain under “immense strain,” said Vince Hall, an official with Feeding America, a network of more than 200 food banks. Demand for help remains far above pre-pandemic levels, even as food banks face continued supply chain disruptions, higher food and transportation costs and lower food donations.

Andrew Cheyne, managing director of public policy for GRACE, a California-based anti-poverty organization, urged recipients to reach out now to county offices to update their eligibility and ensure they’re getting the maximum benefit possible. Changes in costs for shelter, child care, elder care and other expenses can affect food stamp benefits.

Recipients can also check other benefits, such as the federal Women, Infants and Children program and seek out refundable tax credits.

Cheyne and other advocates said the emergency benefits should have been extended indefinitely instead of cut prematurely.

“It’s just an unimaginable hunger cliff that folks were going to go over at some point,” he said.

Jim Horning, left, and George Maes put together a basket of food for a family, which will provide three days worth of meals, Feb. 27 at Friends of St. Andrew. Horning and Maes have been volunteering at Friends for 21 and 19 years, respectively.
Photo by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

In Colorado, the governor’s office and General Assembly endorsed an amendment to the state’s human services budget that added $14 million to fund local food banks and food pantries.

Arapahoe County spokesperson Anders Nelson encouraged county residents to use the county’s ArapaSource tool to locate food pantries and other local resources. He also said the county had doubled food pantry supplies at both of its offices to assist with emergency food needs.

Adams County has already published a list of food banks and food pantries, and spokesperson Nikki Kimbleton said the county has partnered with local nonprofit Benefits in Action to help families apply for and renew their food assistance benefits.

She said county commissioners also approved the $1.5 million in federal COVID-19 aid funds to support food resources in Adams County over the next two years, and Adams County Community Support Services is asking commissioners for 22 additional staffers to assist residents in need.

The state also maintains a toll-free support line, 800-816-4451, for residents to call and get answers about their benefits.

However, Maraccini questioned whether any state or local legislative action would be enough to protect families that rely on SNAP.

“This is a $55 million per month decrease of federal dollars,” she said. “So it’s just huge. It’s too big of an amount for any state to try to patch together resources to fully replace that.”

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Kelly White
Kelly White
24 days ago

Every place is hiring

Kelly White
Kelly White
24 days ago

Stop wasting money on drugs and buy what is important. FOOD!
Marijuana legalization was a total error